Tuesday November 4th at 6am . Phone call. that’s official, Barack Obama has become the president of the United States of America. I turn on the TV, and I see him pronouncing his speech at Grant Park. It’s a beautiful speech, and I am happy. Many people are certainly happier than me, of course in the US and also in France. Here in Paris many people celebrated the victory of Obama, in bars, in the street, and in my university – an event had been organized that night there. The huge majority of French people supported Obama. Not surprising, after 8 year of the Bush Administration. Even if none of us could vote (despite the fact that everybody agrees that we should protest against it since American politics affects the whole world!!!), many people were celebrating it as if it was their candidate who won, in their own country. Why?
First, it is because Obama sets an end to Bush’s America. Never had the reputation of the US been that low. Unilateralism that lead to the war in Iraq, tremendous increase of the deficit and debt, refusal to ratifying the Kyoto protocol, no significant improvement of Israeli-Arab relationships (despite the hard and good work of Condi Rice), economic and financial crisis. Obama’s victory – as much as Palin’s defeat! – sounds like the end of this America and the beginning of a new and more open one.
The second reason for Obama’s popularity in France – and not only– is related to what he represents; I mean the first black officially designated candidate for the presidential election. In Europe, we like this kind of story : here the story of a man who seemed to have fulfilled what seemed to be an impossible dream for a black person, only thanks to his charisma and determination. Many people don’t really know – or don’t know at all – his political program, and don’t know his background – many people ignore he is not properly an “African American”. But they just do not care about it. Obama symbolizes an American dream that did not seem to exist over the last 8 years abroad and that has been suddenly revived.
A third reason is that Obama was undeniably the chosen candidate from the – French – media. It was very funny to see the supposedly “impartial” French media dealing with the American election over the night. Reporters were sent to Chicago and Washington, but none of them were sent to Arizona. We could also hear some words such as “thankfully, “good news” etc. The fact that he is the first black candidate really able to claim the presidency is an image that the media likes, particularly here in France, where there are many issues about racial and ethnic discriminations, integration, colonization etc. We all know how the media is the real 4th power in our countries, and how it is more than very difficult for anybody who has the media against him to be popular.
This general enthusiasm for Obama is very interesting, because it is not a unified and homogenous feeling. On the contrary, many people – particularly among people involved in politics – try rather to consider Obama’s victory as their own victory, the victory of their own ideas, their own political party. Basically, there is an implicit competition about who is the happiest regarding Obama’s victory. Wednesday morning, just after Obama’s official victory, a French socialist was saying on the TV that Obama’s first speech (and ideas in general) were close to the French left. Personally, I don’t think that talking about patriotism, working “harder”, and ending with “God bless you” has anything to do with French socialism. On the contrary, he doesn’t oppose the right to bear arms, nor death penalty. He is not properly a pro-choice activist either. Economically, let us not forget that he is American, so he won’t contest the generally free-market principles admitted there. Even if he supports more public intervention in different fields and plans to raise the taxes a bit, it does not mean he is a socialist. On the contrary, the Bush Administration would be more likely socialist, given the extent to which it increased the debt! (Don’t forget that the debt is the future taxes!).
In other words, Obama’s policy won’t be fundamentally different from what has been done in American politics until now. He can change a lot about how to do things, America’s image in the world, and how to make American power more acceptable in the world, which is already a lot.
This discrepancy between what we expect (particularly in Europe) of Obama and what he’ll really do sort of worries me. This competition to pull the cover of Obama’s victory on ourselves completely has completely blinded many people about reality. This is detrimental to the extent that Obama’s image has been made instrumental for political ends. Supporting Obama is fashionable, so we have to support Obama for our reputation, our personal popularity. The one who does not support Obama is Bush’s supporter, very conservative etc. Obama now represents all the values of freedom, integrity, tolerance, equality, openness, and his image has been much idealized, which is very dangerous, particularly before he really starts to tackle the main national and international issues.
That can be very unhealthy, because everybody is going to use Obama’s image to give the evidence of relevance of their own programs and claims. Socialists insist on progress, right wing people insist of the proper similarities of the two programs, anti-racism associations insist on the fact that France does not favor minorities’ integration sufficiently. Indeed, many people openly use Obama’s victory to promote their claims, particularly the activists for more “diversity”.
I think there are several dangers in thinking that way, and we should not let blind ourselves by this biased image. The worst thing to do would be to reduce Obama to his characteristics of being the first black president. Obama is the president of the whole American people, graduated from Harvard Law School, was senator of Illinois etc. He is an American elite, not a leader of any black movement. He is now the president of the US, and even if his victory meant a lot for most African-Americans (we’ll all remember the tears of Jesse Jackson!), it cannot be reduced to the victory of a black person, but of the best candidate in this election. Obama’s political ideas are colorblind, and there is a danger in presenting his victory only as a black person’s one. Indeed there is a very fine line in thinking that his victory is a kind of revenge from an oppressed community. Looking at Obama’s election from the angle of color too much could eventually increase racial dissensions again, not only in the US but also far beyond. We have to consider Obama first as what he is first and foremost, that is the best candidate in that election.
More over, we should not forget, neither Americans, nor French people that Obama has been elected by the American people to defend their national interests domestically and in the world. We have to be sure of that : THE BASICS OF AMERICAN POLITICS IN THE WORLD WILL NOT CHANGE. Indeed we can expect less contempt than during Bush’s term, relations can be smoother than before, and maybe Obama will understand better than George W. Bush that the global interest gets along with America’s long term interest (that’s our only realistic hope for things to be better regarding economics, international relations and global warming). But Obama has been elected to defend the challenged American 1st position in the world, and it’s not because most of foreigners love Obama that he will forget what he has been elected for.
If we don’t understand that, there will be a tremendous disappointment for everybody. Indeed, despite Obama’s virtuous qualities and his undeniable integrity, he does not come with a magical wand, and actually his breathing space as president will be very tight (Iraqi and Afghan quagmires, financial and economic crisis, huge debt and deficit). With this space, he is likely to use it to defend American interests first and foremost, and we have to be conscious of that. This is certainly a key element to remember and not to be disappointed by Obama in the future.
Do I give a pessimistic image of what Obama can bring to the world? I don’t think so. Obama has been elected because of the deep change Americans want in their political scene. Changing the image of America in the world is already a huge challenge, and the enthusiasm that has been aroused by Obama’s victory allows us to hope a future better than the past eight years, but from a sensible and realistic hope and not an idealist feeling. That is how I feel about Obama’s election, and even if his name is already written on the pages of History as the first black president of the US, let’s give him the opportunity to write some more as a great and competent one.